Despite increasingly urgent international warnings and an onslaught of catastrophic wildfires and weather linked to global warming, fewer Massachusetts residents see the climate crisis as a very serious concern than they did three years ago, according to a new poll.
It’s not that respondents weren’t aware of the climate threat; a large majority acknowledged that symptoms of the crisis such as increased flooding, extreme heat waves, and more powerful storms are either already happening or very likely within five years, according to the poll, a collaboration of The Boston Globe and The MassINC Polling Group. And more than three quarters called climate change a “very serious” or “serious” concern.”
But with a pandemic and war in Ukraine as a backdrop, fewer than half, 48 percent, ranked climate in the highest category of concern, down from 53 percent in 2019, the last time the poll was taken. Less than half said they would vote along climate lines or take steps such as switching their home heat off fossil fuel.
“Climate change is the kind of issue where people still think they can put it off on the back burner of their minds, especially when they’re dealing with COVID, when they’re dealing with inflation, when they’re dealing with all kinds of other terrible things in the world,” said Richard Parr, research director with The MassINC Polling Group.
MassINC polled 1,890 Massachusetts residents between March 23 and April 5. The poll was sponsored by the Barr Foundation and has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.6 percent. (The foundation provides grant support for a Globe education project, The Great Divide.)
Many more Democrats than Republicans ranked climate as a very serious issue, 62 percent compared to 22 percent, though the number of Democrats who ranked it high declined by 10 points since 2019. The share of Republicans who found it a very serious issue stayed roughly the same. Black and Latino residents tended to worry more about climate than white respondents. And at a time when individuals are being asked to do more to combat the crisis, residents report that they are embracing certain responses, including recycling, while other tactics, such as replacing fossil fuel in their homes or buying an electric vehicle, feel out of reach.
Nancy Herriott, a physician’s assistant from Duxbury who was among the respondents who thinks climate poses a “somewhat” serious problem for Massachusetts, said feelings of urgency are hard to hold on to. “For me, it sort of fluctuates, month by month,” said Herriott, a Democrat-leaning independent who said she adores Governor Charlie Baker. “When serious weather patterns are in the news, it feels more real, more urgent. Then it dies down and we get back to our usual weather patterns, and I think, maybe it isn’t as dire as the news media is saying.”
Which isn’t to say that she doesn’t worry. “I do feel some urgency,” she said, “but it’s like most human nature, if it isn’t affecting us personally, it doesn’t feel as pressing as some other issues.”
But while the crisis has been simmering for decades, United Nations reports in 2021 and 2022 indicate that it has reached a boiling point. In order to avoid the worst of climate change, the UN reports that global emissions must be reduced by 45 percent by the end of the decade — but instead, they are projected to rise by nearly 14 percent. “We are sleepwalking to climate catastrophe,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said last month.
In Massachusetts, meeting a statewide goal of reducing emissions by 50 percent of 1990s levels by 2030 and reaching net-zero by 2050 will require that a series of things happen simultaneously: the vast expansion of clean energy on the electrical grid, the conversion of buildings off fossil fuels, and the electrification of transportation.
Edwood Haynesworth, a 69-year-old Roxbury resident, is among those who reported seeing significant changes. “I’m not used to this type of flooding here in Boston, at the MBTA and Aquarium area,” he said, adding that it was unlike anything he’d experienced in his lifetime in the area.
Haynesworth was among the 57 percent of Black respondents who said that climate change poses a very serious problem for the state — a full nine percentage points higher than the overall figure. Likewise, 60 percent of Latino respondents said it was a very serious problem. These numbers track national polls that show Blacks and Latinos being more concerned than white people about climate change.
Another respondent, Norberto Perez, a 41-year-old IT director who lives in Middlesex County, said he’s felt the impacts of climate change via the worsening of pollen, which scientists have found is increasing and starting earlier than it did 30 years ago — kicking off allergy season around Valentine’s Day instead of St. Patrick’s Day.
“I’ve never had asthma issues or breathing issues” before, he said. “But over the last few years, I have been absolutely suffering.”
Perez said he has adopted several measures to fight climate change at home. Like 79 percent of respondents, he recycles, and he’s among the 62 percent who adjusts his thermostat to save energy. Perez is also among a smaller group — 28 percent — who composts. But one thing that he does not do is vote based on his climate priorities.
“It’s not because I wouldn’t,” he said. “It’s because there are so many other issues going on right now. It makes it difficult to just focus on that one thing.”
Of the residents polled, just 34 percent said they vote based on climate priorities. That number climbs to 47 percent when just looking at Democrats. But Parr, of MassINC, said the numbers were surprisingly low given that 66 percent of Democrats said that climate is a top-three issue for them.
“There just aren’t a lot of single-issue voters on climate right now,” Parr said. “Which is not to say that you’re voting against climate. You might be voting for someone who is good on climate, but the main reason you’re voting for them is something else.”
When she goes to vote, Vicki DiLorenzo, a 34-year-old graduate student in East Boston, said she doesn’t choose specifically on climate because she doesn’t have to. “Where I live, basically every candidate is centering climate in their platform,” said DiLorenzo, who worked on Michelle Wu’s successful campaign for mayor.
Within the next four years, 29 percent of respondents said, they might install heat pumps or already had and 32 percent said they might install solar panels or already had.
Steven Raposo was among those who has installed solar panels and made the switch to an electric car. But Raposo, who lives in Bristol County, said he mostly took those steps for economic reasons, not for the climate. He is among the 44 percent of Republicans who said he thinks climate change is a low priority and he described the issue as a “big hoax.”
“They keep saying that we have 10 more years on the planet before it’s, like, devastating,” he said. “And it’s like, ‘No, you keep saying that. You’ve been saying that longer than I’ve been alive.’”
When it comes to transportation, 44 percent of respondents said they were very or somewhat likely to lease or buy an electric vehicle for their next car, and 73 percent said they were willing to walk instead of drive for trips of a mile or less.
But this question — of how much individuals must do, compared with what must happen at the state or federal policy level — is an emotional one. In interviews, some respondents said they question whether their individual actions will do enough.
Mary Freeman, of Lynnfield, said that if incentives were good enough, she would buy an electric vehicle. “But in my opinion, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “The way I look at it, I don’t think that burden of responsibility should be pushed down to the individual because that is not what’s going to make an impact.”
In the end, the solution to climate change won’t be about individual action or decisions at the policy and corporate levels — it will be about both, said Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts.
“The problem with climate change is that the sum of our individual actions are going to be grossly insufficient to deliver the systemic changes that we need, and this is more like marshaling a response to a war,” she said. “You can’t fight a war with 350 million people each doing their own thing.”
David Abel of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Read the full results of the poll here.
Sabrina Shankman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shankman. Dharna Noor can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.